Friday, November 27, 2009

An Entrepreneur's Dilemma--Grow with People or Technology

Two different companies, each in a different industry, face the same dilemma.  Growth and success have created significant pressure on their business, specifically their people and their technology.  In order to solve the short-term constraints as well as build the most scalable solution for the long-term, how much investment should be made into new technology and how much should be made in people, or human assets?

Both companies have found a shortage of "off-the-shelf" software to solve their technology needs, so they have built powerful databases and other platforms from which they run their business.  It seems that many entrepreneurs under 40 have the attitude that they should hire a full-time programmer and build their systems from scratch, which often ends up much more affordable in the short-term.  The spirit of bootstrapping is alive and well, even in young entrepreneurs.

The challenge, however, with this scenario is what happens after a year or two.  In both situations, the customized solution has already become antiquated and the company is beholden to the developer who, after some analysis, used non-traditional coding and programming language that is difficult to comprehend and unwind.  These developers often become a little lazy and create shortcuts and work-arounds that begin to rear an ugly head in the most inopportune moments.  What worked in the short-term may not be the viable long-term solution.

Both companies are very conservative in their hiring practices, careful not to over-staff their operations.  Yet failing technology systems put so much pressure on their staff that the entrepreneurs begin to hear things like: "I'm going home at night and on the weekend and working several extra hours each day remotely to try and keep up.  We need to hire more people or I'm going to burn out."  Often we hire more people to keep our staff happy, but we are actually perpetuating the problem created by insufficient technology.

I tend to operate under the following two premises when it comes to people and technology in a business.  First, use technology to automate as much of the business as possible so that the company can focus on hiring bright, smart, talented employees to help the company grow.  Second, do not buy or implement technology to solve your problems - your employees need to solve the problems first, then you can purchase and implement technology to automate the solutions they develop.  Each of these is worthy of a separate blog of their own, but we'll let this serve as the basis whereby we approach this dilemma.

Obviously the answer to this dilemma will differ with each situation, but I challenge all entrepreneurs to think hard about the investment they are making into people and technology.  If we are confident that your technology can support the next five to ten years of growth in terms of scalability and relevance, then we are in a fantastic position.  If we are not confident in this and we are just doing the necessary things to "band-aid" our way through each day, month, and year, then ultimately we will probably have to scrap that system and start all over again, anyway.  And we'll spend a lot of money on people trying to hold it all together in this process.  We should seriously consider getting it right the first time if at all possible.

In addition, we need to strongly consider which operations performed by employees could be automated, and we need to start down the road of automating those functions.  Our competitors are going to do it, and we will need to eventually, as well.  For almost 2 years I put myself through college in a call center for one of the largest investment companies in the world.  At the time, automated telephone systems were becoming popular and many of my co-workers thought they would lose their jobs to automation.  Not only was this not true, but we also found that instead of wasting our time answering questions and resolving concerns that the automated systems could handle we could focus on the more value-added elements of the company's service mission.  The point - our knowledge worker society will progress only as fast as we automate the simple stuff and add more value to our customers with our human assets.